CiCi sits up, still holding onto my arm, answering before I can gather my thoughts,
“He’ll be back, Tmonk-Tmonk. Just…” She looks down at my arm, where the bruises around my elbow and bicep have faded to pale yellow.
“Just be careful, ok?”
Bryl is dead, so the eminent danger seems to have passed, but I sense that she’s not thinking about him. The image of Merryt, standing half swathed in shadow, at the bottom of my front steps swims up in my mind’s eye. Dark eyes glinting with gold in the waxing moonlight, hawkish features seeming sharper as he withdrew.
“I’ll see you later.”
Back to that night…
The humidity of this place is cloying. As he pushes through the underbrush, Merryt directs the confusing upwelling of anger and disgust towards the environment. This place, this rainforest she called it-so many trees, so much dampness. He can feel his boots squelching in the leaf cluttered, soggy earth. The sight of her standing on that little step in front of her door, the eerily silver light of the single moon illuminating her, making her skin iridescent and her eyes- He furiously swipes a feathery plant out of his way, seeing the under-lights of the ship looming maybe a hundred yards away now. Why did I invite her to this ship? What was I thinking? Stupid.
When he emerges from the forest, he sees Rejir sitting on the ramp, in the entryway to the ship. His silhouette and shadow unite to create a strange effect as he stands upon seeing the prince.
“That was quick,” he remarks, and as Merryt draws close enough to make out his features, he sees furtive relief on the face of his remaining captain.
“Hmmph,” Merryt walks up the ramp. Rejir steps aside to let him pass, inside, and then stands very still. Merryt takes a deep breath of the familiar, dry air of the ship. The comfort of space, of the vaguely metallic ozone scented reality of ship living is calming. His heart is beginning to return to a normal pace.
“My liege?” Rejir.
Shrugging out of his night mist dampened coat, Merryt turns to look at the dark haired man, raising his eyebrows as if to say what?
Looking discomforted, but plunging ahead nonetheless, Rejir says, “I was wondering if we…have a plan? Should we notify the Emperor that we will be returning-“
Merryt rounds completely, feeling heat creeping around his collar, nettled by realization that his mysterious anger is still circulating within him,
Rejir licks his lips nervously, “Well, I just thought that with Bryl dead-I mean to say, your father will want to know-“
“I’ll be getting in contact with him. But I have no plans to leave immediately.” Rejir shifts nervously, and Merryt flares, “If you want to leave, you are welcome to. I can summon a transport from orbit around this solar system, and have you transferred to a different command if you would like.” Fixing his dark eyes on his pale eyed captain, Merryt waits for a response.
“I have no interest in changing to a new command, sir.” His voice is quiet but firm, and to his credit, his gaze doesn’t waver. Merryt feels suddenly aware of the formality of his man’s address.
“I’m glad, and stop with the ‘sir’ and ‘my liege’ shit, Rejir. Unless you want me to start referring to you as ‘My captain.’”
Rejir’s stance visibly relaxes, and a ghost of a smile passes over his face.
He and the Prince went through the training academy together, starting when they were ten. That’s the age that Merr boys bound for officerhood begin training. Merryt and he have been friends for the past nine years, and when Merryt had received his first ship from the Emperor two years ago, Rejir was the first one he had commissioned as crew. Bryl had been a newer addition, and wasn’t chosen by the Prince, but rather, had been assigned to Merryt’s skeleton crew for this journey by his father’s orders. Merryt suspected it was some sort of ridiculous “learning experience.”
Flinging his coat over his shoulder and turning to go down the hall and towards his quarters, Merryt shudders. Some learning experience.
He stops again, asking the question before he realized it had been formed,
“What should we do with the body?”
Rejir swipes a hand beside the opening, causing the ramp to fold and the door to whoosh down silently, sealing out the humid night. Walking to Merryt's side, they begin walking towards the elevator.
“Should we incinerate it? I-I don’t really know what the protocol is here.”
“My father may want us to send it back to Merr.”
As they get into the elevator, Rejir shoots a sidelong glance at the prince, who goes to lean on the back wall of the lift, crossing his arms.
The brooding expression, which has become a familiar fixture these past few weeks since arriving here, has returned to the aquiline face. Wondering if he should, even as he asks, Rejir says tentatively, “What are we doing here? I mean-“ Seeing the thunderous look returning, he rushes ahead, “Those females are out of bounds! And I KNOW, I know, they’re naturalized, and probably have no value as property, and would probably never acclimate to a harem without getting all the other girls in an uproar. Whatever. So, discounting them from the equation, what are we doing?”
The elevator glides to a stop, and the doors slide open. They exit and start walking towards the apartment hall.
Merryt heaves a sigh, “I’ve told you. We’re here to evaluate the planet overall for either contact, assimilation, or postponement.”
Contacting the planet as an equal, assimilating the planet as a resource, or putting it aside as lacking potential for the time being, and being set aside for reevaluation at a later date-standard Merr protocol for planets newly entering into the interstellar community.
“I thought you had determined that this one is a candidate for Postponement.”
“I did. They don’t have very many resources that are worth anything to use either as a colleague or colony.” Merryt stops at the stairwell leading up to his apartment.
Rejir plunges ahead, “So why aren’t we leaving?”
Merryt’s face is inscrutable, a casual expression, though the eyes contradict it.
He stays silent for a long beat, then reaches up and pushes a hand through his hair.
“I just want to learn a little bit more about this place before we go. Like how those two females got here in the first place. Is there something you’d rather be doing? There’s nothing interesting happening in the war, so it’s not like we would get to go to the front lines if we went back. We’d probably just have to join the fleet looking for the Malai.”
Rejir makes a face. The Malai search-fleet is known for being tedious. No breaks in that case, a search for a group of Merr Vogwen rebel refugees, have come up in months.
“I guess this is better,” Rejir concedes. “I wish we had some women though.”
“Go into one of their bigger cities. I’m sure you’ll find plenty,” Merryt says, offhandedly, and starts up the stairs.
When he’s about halfway up to the first landing, Rejir’s voice calls after him,
“Maybe you should come with me. Or think about capturing that little Queen for yourself.”
“Shut the fuck up.” Merryt says, in a low voice, more to himself than aloud.
Rejir continues, throwing all caution to the wind now, “I just hope we aren’t staying here because of her. Unless you really do plan on apprehending them and bringing them back with us. With all due respect...” Rejir seems to feel he might have gone too far. The sound of Merryt’s door opening, and then closing comes down the stairwell.
Rejir sighs and goes down the hall to his own apartment and goes inside to write up his report and go to bed.
“I just hope we aren’t staying here because of her.”
Merryt throws his coat into the corner, then stands, staring at the rumpled bed. After a few moments, he jerkily moves forward, grabbing the empty water glass from the bedside table, then slings it into the cleaning compartment, where the automated system will heat clean it and deposit it back into the cabinet. He lays down on the bed after kicking off his boots, and stares at the ceiling. He feels something tickling his cheek, and snatches at it, and finds a very long white blonde hair. Tmonk-Tmonk Beren. How did you get here? He feels a bit ashamed of how he stormed off from her. For the second time. Why did that happen? She didn’t do anything. Merryt snorts to himself. All the laws she’s breaking, and I’m treating her like she has a right to just do as she pleases. So why haven’t you taken custody of her and her friend, then? You know that’s what you should be doing. Are you that weak? One little sliver of a girl and suddenly everything is a grey area? There’s no grey area here. The image rises unbidden in his mind, her curled up form, catlike, on his bed, one foot dangling off the side, eyes closed, blonde hair spreading out all over the pillows around her. Pulling the sheet up over her shoulders. Why did I do that?
He turns over onto his side with a harsh sigh that doesn’t relieve any tension. Maybe we should leave after all. This is just more reason why females are problematic. This is why I don’t have consorts. He drops off, but sleeps fitfully.
“Hey, did you ever find your necklace?” CiCi asks, as she raises her eyebrows, widening her eyes to apply mascara as she gazes into her mirror. She’s getting ready for her date with Flafrin. She’s wearing a bright magenta satin dress with puffy, off shoulder sleeves and a plunging neckline.
I sigh, “No. I looked all over the trails, and tore the house apart looking for it. I guess it’s gone.” I pick at a hangnail. I’m really bummed out to have lost that. Every memory I have of Veta from my whole childhood, she’s wearing that necklace. Two iridescent quartz crystals hung from a long chain. I remember it glinting blue and purple in the sunlight. I loved that necklace so much. She took it off and put it in my hand when she was starting to fade in her last illness. I still remember feeling the sharp edges pressing into the flesh of my palm as she squeezed her fingers around mine, closing it in.
CiCi sets her mascara down and turns on her seat to look at me. She looks funny with only one eye fully mascara’d, because her eyelashes are blond naturally.
“I hate to say this, but it’s probably in that ship.”
I shrug, “I know. That’s why I say I guess it’s gone. Not like I can just go knock on the door and ask if they found it.”
CiCi cocks her head to the side, “Why not?”
I sit up, surprised. After her vehement resistance to me having anything to do with the Merr or their ship, it seems counterintuitive for her to suggest I go back there, even for this.
“I guess I didn’t think that was an option.”
CiCi bites her lip, thinking. “That necklace means a lot to you though.” She snaps her fingers, “How about if I go with you? We can just march down there and tell them you lost it, ask them to look around for it, and then come home.”
“You don’t have to do that. I can just go by myself.” Not like I’m going to stay, or try to talk to Merryt, I tell myself, shutting my mind off to anything beyond asking him if he’s found my necklace.
CiCi seems to sense something bubbling under the surface, and narrows her eyes,
“I don’t know if you should go alone. What if he tries to put on the charm?”
“Put on the charm?” I say, rolling my eyes. “Honestly, it’s like you think I’m dumb.”
“Not dumb, just…innocent.” She says, looking at me seriously.
“Fine, then come with me to protect my innocence,” I quip, then, “And please put mascara on your other eye. You look creepy.”
She looks at herself in the mirror and says, “Maybe I should have bought that orange mascara…”
I grimace at her in the mirror. “Ew. Please no.”
She sighs, “Fiiiiiiine. At least I have THIS!” And she takes out a tube of lipstick and starts putting it on. “It’s called Tangerine!” She says, smiling brightly. I say brightly and mean it literally, because her lips are now a vivid shade of orange that definitely fits the bill as tangerine.
A resounding sound like a gong fills the house. CiCi’s doorbell. “Flafrin is here, I’m guessing,” I say, standing up. CiCi quickly finishes mascaraing her other eye, then screws the lid onto the makeup tube and drops it onto the tabletop. Pushing her chair back from the vanity table, she stands, then turns to me, her face flushed, and asks, “How do I look?”
“Gorgeous,” I say, and even with the tangerine lipstick, it’s true. The fitted satin dress hugs her curves, making me feel flat as a board. She’s wearing black heels that bring her within a few inches of my own height, and her hair is for once not in the characteristic pigtails. It tumbles and floats around her head and shoulders in bright golden spirals and springs.
She smiles, nervously, and says, “Tomorrow, we’ll go see about finding your necklace, ok, Queenie?”
I return her smile, and say, “Ok. Thanks. Have fun. But not too much!” She rolls her eyes, and we walk to the front door. She opens it to find a mass of bright orange flowers, mostly roses and lilies, almost filling the doorway. Moments later, with much rustling and petals flying, the massive bouquet and its bearer struggle through the threshold. From behind the mountain of blooms comes the vaguely unctuous voice I recognize as Flafrin, Proprietor.
“Good evening, my lady! For you!” He thrusts the flowers forward, and CiCi opens her arms and embraces the ridiculous bundle. “They’re incredible!” She exclaims, and cranes her neck around them and looks at me, “Tmonk-Tmonk, can you help me by finding a vase or something?”
“More like a barrel,” I say, half joking, but I quickly depart to the kitchen and start rifling through things, looking for a receptacle big enough. I notice a big ten gallon bucket by the stove, and yanking the mop out of it and tossing that back into the corner, I lug it to the sink and turn the water on. When there are a couple of inches of water in the bottom, I drag it out of the sink and back into the living room. “This is all I could find!” I exclaim, clunking it down onto the coffee table. CiCi shuffles over with the flower mountain and I help her guide it into the bucket. Even with this big of a container, it’s a tight fit. CiCi straightens up, beaming as she turns to face Flafrin, who I now see is in a tailored, dark persimmon colored suit made of a vaguely shiny fabric.
“Have fun, I’ll see you later,” I say, sidling towards the front door.
When I get outside, I breathe in the warm evening air. CiCi has a riotous flower bed, and it smells amazing. I walk back across the street and down the block, back towards my house.
If I’m honest with myself, I’m deeply nervous about going out to Merryt’s ship again. I don’t know what to expect. I’ll just keep it really business-like. I just want my necklace back. That’s all, right?
The next morning, as I’m sitting blearily on the couch with a cup of coffee in hand, I hear a the doorknob rattle. The door is still locked, so I stand up, but before I can move towards it, I hear a key turning. The door opens and a blonde, fluffy topknot precedes CiCi’s head poking in.
“Just let yourself in!” I snort, dropping back onto the couch. I’m kidding, of course, because I gave her the key myself, and I have a key to her house too. Well, I have keys to pretty much everyone’s house here, but CiCi and I specifically exchanged keys as a token of friendship.
She pops in the door, shutting it behind herself.
“Good morning, sunshine!” She chirps, bypassing the living room, and heading into the kitchen. A few seconds later, I hear her take down a mug and pour coffee into it. She emerges, and goes around the coffee table and plunks down onto the other end of the couch, drawing her feet up, facing me. I turn myself, also pulling my feet up, the way we have sat for years on this same couch.
“So…?” I look at her expectantly over the rim of my cup.
“Hmmm?” She says, batting her eyelashes coyly, as if she doesn’t know exactly what I’m talking about.
“Someone didn’t text me last night after their date…” I say, fixing her with a stare.
Her cheeks flush slightly and she grins.
“A lady never tells!”
Hmm. She’s usually more forthcoming. I’m not sure how I feel about this new, more cagey version of her. After a second, she seems to lose her self control, and she blurts,
“He is SUCH a romantic, Tmonk-Tmonk! And he is such a good listener! He was so interested in the village! Most guys I’ve dated just talk about themselves.”
“So are you going to keep seeing him?”
“Um, duh.” She says, with an exaggerated eyeroll.
“So what did you do?”
We spend nearly an hour discussing at great length the date, and when the subject seems to be exhausted, CiCi stretches, standing up.
“So, ready to go see about your necklace?”
My heart leaps into my throat. When we discussed it yesterday, it made me nervous in an abstract sort of way, but actually resolving to go, and now? My mind starts scrambling for reasons why we might put it off for a little while longer.
Seeing my expression maybe, CiCi says, “Do you want to risk them packing it in and heading back into space? You’ll really regret it if you don’t at least check for your necklace there. I’ll be with you the whole time. Come on! Put your shoes on!”
To Be Continued...